Friday, March 18, 2005

Let the Sunshine in for Sunshine Week March 13-20

This week, March 13-20 is Sunshine Week, the week proclaimed to celebrate and bring attention to our open records laws.

I was taught to believe the more information we, the public, had, the more knowledge we would have about our community, state and country. In an era where journalists were celebrated for bringing to light such scandals as Watergate, I was keenly aware of how important it is to have open records laws on the books.

Open records laws don’t just apply to the whims of journalists seeking information for a “juicy story.” Open records laws apply to anyone in the public seeking information from our government.

Open records or FOI (Freedom of Information Requests) can be filed by anyone, although they are most used by journalists and writers seeking records. I’ve used open records requests professionally-for stories such as the one I wrote on how often puppy mills are inspected.

When my brother died on a street in Fargo, ND and my family was not notified of his death, I filed open records requests for reports into the investigation, his death certificate and his medical files from the Veteran’s Administration. Those records are proving very beneficial in helping us understand his life after Vietnam.

However helpful open records laws are to ordinary citizens seeking the truth or to journalists getting the information to the public, perception of open records is changing.

Last year, a poll indicated that most Americans feel the media has access to too much information. Among other things, the public has tolerated limited access to information imposed by the government during the war in Iraq.

Just this week, an independent prosecutor in Kansas ruled that Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline did not violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act, nor the spirit of the act when he called six (three at a time) conservative state board of education members to his office, to discuss, among other things (so we’re told), placing stickers on text books downplaying the theory of evolution.

The reason, as quoted in The Kansas City Star was that the Attorney General doesn’t fall under open meetings regulations and he is the one who called the board members to the meetings.

What if Kline hadn’t called the board members to his office to discuss evolution, what if he had called them into his office to tell them his feelings on school financing ( a very hot topic in Kansas right now that concerns every student), or something less controversial, would the public have been so quick to not care if they had access to the meeting? And how do we know what really was discussed…

Open records and open meeting laws are there to ensure that the public (not just the media) has open access to business conducted and discussed by public officials-officials who are there to serve all of the public, not just sub-groups or special interests.

Merriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star, began the week with a column documenting how many stories the paper had recently ran that were the result of FOI requests. Here are two more national stories, as highlighted by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE):

· The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, SD discovered that Gov. Bill Janklow had sealed a bunch of pardons under a little known state law. After appealing to the Attorney General , the records were made public. It was learned the Governor had commuted more prison sentences than any other governor in history.
· The Daily Record in York, PA wrote several stories after filing FOI’s with the government for records on their efforts to protect the public from terrorist attacks.

Freedom of Information can also take on many forms. I was recently reminded by a librarian that like journalists, they too are there to protect the rights of Americans. She told me it was an awesome responsibility to have all of the information that is housed in libraries and to make sure that every citizen has equal access to that information.

It’s a responsibility librarians, as well as true journalists, take very seriously.

But if you don’t trust the government -or journalists, just remember it’s your right to ask for this information yourself.

Shine on!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Piecing Around and other Midwestern Sayings

Last weekend, while talking to a good friend on the phone that now lives in St. Louis, she asked me what I would be fixing for lunch on Sunday. “Oh, I’ll fix a big dinner, but we’ll probably just piece around until then.”
“Piece around?” she asked.
“Yeah, you know, just snack.”
“I know what it means, I just can’t believe I’ve found someone else who uses that expression too.”
She went on to explain that when she’s used that expression in St. Louis, friends have laughed at her and asked what she means. We chuckled at that notion since it has been a part of our vocabulary for as long as we can remember.
Both of us being native Kansans, I told her, “Must be a Kansas thing.”
We here in the Midwest don’t like to think we have a twang. Little hairs stand up when we meet someone from New York who asks, “Where in the South are you from?” I even had a boss from New York ask me where the cattle crossings were when I was showing her the city during her first visit to “the open range.” Having a Southern accent is a matter of perspective, I guess, depending on where in the United States you’re from. I’m convinced that everyone on the East Coast considers anyone west of New York “Southern.”
I once knew a native North Carolinian who bristled every time we told her she had a southern accent. “North Carolina is north to Southerners,” she would tell us.
But we too, think Southerners have a more distinct twang. I always laugh when heading down to our cabin an hour into Arkansas because as soon as we cross the state line from Missouri, I have trouble understanding the store clerks.
Being a native Kansas Citian-a Dotte, as we’re now proudly calling ourselves in our corner of the Metro, I never really noticed dialect or twang until I was in my 20’s and working for a J.C. Penney call center, which drew employees from all over the region and the United States.
It was easy to joke with a woman from Minn-e-s-O-ta.
Of course, the out-of-towners made fun of us as well. The first time I called our refrigerator an “ice box,” I drew guffaws for week.
“Did the ice man come today?” one person would ask each morning.
My parents came from an age where the ice man did come to fill the ice box everyday and I just grew up calling it that, its seems easier to say than “refrigerator” anyway.
Another thing that drew a lengthy discussion at the call center about dialect was the word, “divan,” or “couch.” Some people, depending on where they come from call it a “sofa,” or some even still call it a “davenport.”
My dad was a native Southerner. He used to pronounce “Light bulb” as “Light bub,” something we thought was pretty funny, but he failed to see the humor. “Sacks” were also “pokes” and “everyone” was “y’all” around our house.
Growing up, I took on part Midwestern dialect and part Southern, which I blame for some of my lazy pronunciation. I pronounce my husbands name, Dale, as “Dell.” My poor great aunt was confused until the day she passed as to what his name was-she asked me is it “Dale” or “Dell?” every time we saw her. And a friend recently pointed out to me she thought I was saying “Dell.” I’m not the only one who does this and at this point, he’ll answer to just about anything anyway, so why should I change after 26 years?
Of course, English words can mean different things to people in England and Australia, as we learned when we hosted our first exchange student back in the 1970’s. We took her to a baseball game and she was terribly embarrassed that we were “rooting” for the home team. In Australia, that doesn’t mean cheering! There are so many words and expressions that are different, my Australian daughter, Meg, even gave me a book defining the differences between American English and Australian English words.
Only once do I remember ever offending anyone with an expression I learned in my neighborhood. As a young woman, while bantering with black friend at work, who was from the South, I used the expression “Boy.” His demeanor quickly changed and later, he asked me if I knew what that meant to a Southern black man. I didn’t, it was a phrase we used in the neighborhood all of the time-and it didn’t have anything to do with race-or even gender-it was just a phrase we used with everyone like “man” or “you guys.” When he explained it to me, I, of course, never used it again.
Speech patterns in the East can sound just as strange to us. When my mother and sister traveled to the extreme Northeastern states, they had a heck of a time understanding directions containing the word “Peabody,” which there is pronounced, “pee-bid-ee” and said extremely fast.
Some Easterners dropping the “r’s” at the end of words perplexes me as much as my “Dell” does some from the East, so when I meet people from the East coast who ask me what part of the south I’m from, I just go ahead and tell them “Kansas City.” Sometimes they smile, getting that their perspective of a southern accent is of course, different than ours.
But if they ever ask me again about the cattle crossings, I’ll tell them, “Y’all better watch out, you can encounter one of them there cows on the road just about anywhe-ah.”

Friday, March 04, 2005

Kansas...As Small Minded As You Think?

The Kansas tourism folks recently adopted a new slogan to bring more people and publicity to the State…. “Kansas, as big as you think.” However, I don’t think the national press that Kansas has been getting in the past month was quite what those people had in mind.

We first got a huge dose of national exposure when the evolution vs. creationism debate in public schools reared its ugly head again (see my previous column). In the midst of the publicity, we’ve got our own Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, a neo-conservative, circumventing the Kansas Open Meetings Act by calling other like minded state board of education members to his office for pro stickers on books meetings three at a time-just so he only violated the spirit of the law and not the law itself.

Of course, with all the media attention focused on Kline, he couldn’t help but bring the abortion issue to the forefront again as well, just so he could spend more quality time with Bill O’Reilly on Fox. Kline wants the records of 90 abortions performed in the State. Why? His reasoning is that he is looking for minors who might have been the victims of rape or incest. If that were true, why is he not demanding the birth records of babies born to underage children? It’s simple. The ultra conservative right who calls themselves “pro life” usually only advocate for the life of the unborn. Taking a look at birth records might even force them take a look at the social ills faced by girls who aren't prepared to become mothers.

I bet though, that the moral savior of our secular laws in Kansas was probably relieved when he was able to take the spot light once again on national television during the press conference to announce the apprehension of the BTK serial killer in Wichita-even though he had little, if nothing, to do with the final outcome. Too bad that BTK professed to be an evangelical Christian though; the moral values crowd might loose his vote in future elections.

The day after Election Day, I got an email from a friend in Pennsylvania wanting to know about some “reverend” in Kansas who hates gays and was running for office. I replied, “Oh, that’s just Fred Phelps, the State’s resident gay basher.” Phelps made national headlines several years ago for protesting the outcry to Matthew Shepherd’s killing in Casper, Wyoming. Phelps took his perverse brand of Christianity and displayed signs at the site where Matthew was killed saying that Matthew is burning in hell because he was gay. Now that’s showing compassionate conservatism, especially to Matthew’s grieving family. We just thank God in the middle of the red sea here that Phelp’s granddaughter (it was she running for office) lost against the gay council member she was trying to unseat in Topeka.

With the BTK killer caught and election day out of the way, good old Phill had time to regroup his abortion subpoena requests and now he’s at it again.

Finally, as if we hadn’t had enough in the national spotlight this month, we learned that the Aryan Nations Neo-Nazi group is reforming and relocating. Yep, the metropolitan area where Marion Labs was built and the place that is home to the Sprint Corp and Hallmark Cards was going to be the new world headquarters for the Aryan Nation. This is a group whose leader boasted in The Kansas City Star the other day that his group had nothing to do with the recent murder of a judge’s elderly mother and husband, but “We love it!” he said. Makes you wonder how they found little old KCK on the map, could it have been the attention we got through a certain failed Congressional campaign last fall that drew praise and endorsements from national anti-immigration groups?

When I first wrote this, I had faith that the people of Wyandotte County, most of who are proud of our great ethnic and cultural diversity would run the Nazi’s out of town. Alas, this morning, the Aryans announced that they would move their world headquarters to Florida instead, thanks to an email campaign directed at their website yesterday. Good. I’m all for free speech, but a hate filled group connected to violence is something we don’t need. Maybe they’ll be more appreciated down South, where I’m told white people won’t buy a house if it is located on a street named after Martin Luther King Jr.

And what does Kansas have to look forward to in the future? Well, we have the gay marriage amendment vote coming up, something I’m sure that will make Phelps and his granddaughter feel tingly all over. We can’t have monogamous gays who love each other enjoying the same benefits as we married heterosexuals.

No, I’m sure the recent headlines isn’t the kind of attention the tourism folks want for Kansas, but thanks to the people that voted for our woman Governor, who is also a Democrat, and to those who drove the Nazis away, maybe there’s hope for Kansas after all.

“Kansas…hopefully, not as small minded as you think.”